Sunday, March 29, 2015

how to read poetry

So, those of you who read my last post know that in school right now, we are studying poetry. And it is making me very, very happy. So happy that I came home from school and scrounged up a few old books of poetry...and kept working, even though we didn't have any official homework. 
Which is...oops. Totally weird. I was never supposed to be a public schooler. (sigh)

But anyhow. I figured that in a blogging world full of word-lovers and poetry-writers, maybe some of you would find the same joy that I did when my English teacher did his lesson on annotations. (which sound boring but are actually VERY, VERY awesome.)

(Baaaasically, super-quick, these annotations are short interpretations of poetry. You read through the poem several times with the intention of finding your own unique interpretation and being able to back it up with evidence found in the poem. 
Okay, English nerd rant over. Now the fun starts, I promise.)

(Actually, to be totally honest, this whole post is an English nerd rant. Continue at your own peril.)

(I promise I use way less parenthesis than I did in the first paragraph of this post.)
When the Pie Was Opened, Jean Little

Step 1. Read the poem all the way through, simply for enjoyment. Turn off that part of your brain that is hunting for literary devices and pretty phraseology, and just read. Don't even have a pencil in your hand at this point (I included mine to make the picture more artistic, whoops. It's not even sharpened properly.)

Step 2. (Now you can grab that pencil.) Start circling or underlining or making boxes around the things that stand out to you right away. It could be words you don't understand, pretty phrases, or weird indentations that you really dislike without quite knowing why. In this poem, I immediately noticed the word 'niggardly,' because I thought it was a derogatory term and I didn't understand why it would be used in this poem. IT IS NOT. Apparently, "niggardly," means 'reluctant to give or spend; miserly; stingy' * and originates from Scandinavia. Huh.


Step 3. Now it's time to get into the mechanics. Start looking for literary devices, rhyme schemes...all the typical English-smenglish nonsense that we've been hearing about all our lives. Underline this stuff, too. Make it beautiful. (when I'm just writing on notepaper or handouts from school, I like to use a highlighter as well as pencil.)


Step 4. Begin to form interpretations and opinions. This is my favourite part! You can kinda see bits and pieces of my thoughts all over the page, so I'll just bullet-point some stuff to make it easier to read. 
  • When I was reading In Retrospect, I noticed that it had a really defined rhythm that kept falling apart in the last line of every stanza. About halfway through the poem, this was resolved and the final three stanzas have the perfected rhythm. This is about the same point in the poem that the speaker begins to realize that her relationship was confining, and so I thought that perhaps she used the first two imperfect stanzas to show that she knew something wasn't quite right in her relationship...and then she felt better, the issues resolved themselves after she was free.
  • She calls him "frail," like maybe she expected him to be perfect and strong all the time and he wasn't, he was only human. Or maybe it was their love that was frail, because it wasn't real?
  • I love the use of the word "dimensions," because to me it says that she realized that their relationship wasn't infinite: it could be contained.
  • He makes her feel like her heart is a simple square room, boring and bland and with no mysterious allure or potential for hidden secrets...but in reality, she is a castle full of doors, lots of possibility, and she even though she can be loved and lived in, she can't be owned. No one can really own a castle...they're too magnificent.

Step 5. Expand on these opinions and begin to collate your thoughts into an overall interpretation of the poem. I kind of skipped this step because I was running out of room, but on my English assignments for Mr. G, I like to find a blank corner of paper and write a summary paragraph, because oftentimes my initial notes don't support my final interpretation. For this poem, I'd jot down some notes on how it's about her realization and recovery from an abusive (or at least possessive) relationship. I'd talk about the phrase "dimensions of our love," and how she uses that to make their feelings for each other something physical, instead of emotional, to show that it wasn't significant...I'd talk about the one room vs. castle comparison again, to explain that she came out of the relationship with a new sense of self-esteem and self-worth beyond what her boyfriend had attributed to her, and I'd probably mention the whole flawed>fixed rhythm thing, to show her journey through the different stages of emotion after the breakup.

IF THAT MAKES ANY SENSE, you all get cookies.

IT'S SO PURTY. (if you have a phobia of writing in books, you can often find the poems online and print them out, or if copying is your thing, you could write them down in a journal. I personally like re-reading old annotations so I chose to write in my book...but I know that's not everyone's cup of tea.)
So, wow. That was kind of intense. 
How do you feel about poetry? Do you think you'll try an annotation sometime? (or did I totally scare you off??? be honest.)


*according to


  1. Poetry is weird for me. I don't like really sentimental poems, or ones that don't make sense immediately. However, I love poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell because their poems make sense, rhyme, and are basically glorified prose. Right now in American Lit., we're studying modern poetry, and I actually enjoy some of it. I might try an annotation! It looks fun! However, I don't like looking too deep into an author's meaning. I mostly go with a very literal translation, if that makes sense...

    1. Ashley, that makes complete sense to me! I enjoy reading the poems that tell a clearer story as well, but I do prefer the more obscure ones. I like being able to draw my own conclusions and kind of "own" the poem for myself. I'd love to see a completely literal translation - I took a lot of liberties with mine.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!!


    Okay, but seriously, I really enjoyed this. That poem is so great, and I loved your step-by-step through it. So cool. I need to read more poetry and put this into practice! Thanks for sharing this, Olivia!


      Whew, I'm glad to hear that you liked it! I sat down and looked it over and was all like, "well, this is a whopper of a post." I was kind of afraid that maybe no one would read it...eep! But anyways, glad you liked it!

  3. I love poetry now, but when I was little I hated it. I think it's because I didn't realize that in order to enjoy a poem, I have to read it several times over. I love how the more I read a poem, the more I understand the meaning of the piece and how the mechanics of the poem relates to the meaning. I guess that's why I like reading vague and ambiguous poems. I just love watching them come together and make sense before my eyes.

    1. Ana, I totally agree with you! And I love the way you put that - you sound like a poet, yourself! Haha. Thanks for commenting! :)

  4. Really cool post! I love poetry. I had to analyise one in a test it was quite tricky. Love your blog

    1. Thanks Rukiya! I'm glad you liked it! :) I hope you got a good mark on your test!

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  6. I love this so much! Poetry is the one thing I definitely need to read more of, I've been meaning to pick some up but have yet to do so... lovely, lovely post, dear!

    1. Thank you, Hannah! :) And yes, definitely go to your library or bookstore or whatever and pick some up...let me know who your favourite authors are! I'll check them out.

  7. *eats all the cookies* I don't really get poetry, but I still feel like I deserve cookies because OF REASONS. Ahem. But I like poetry, I just don't often get it. >_< I'm a bit of a literal thinker and struggle to get to the next level, but I reckon, if I did this with all the drawing and writing and actually slowing down to THINK about the poems, I'd do a lot better. xD I love this post! And WELL DONE! for writing in your book. I...I have a small wrecking-book-phobia. ahha.
    Thanks for stopping by @ Paper Fury!

    1. Well, in this very special case I'll allow you to eat all the cookies. Just because. And yeahhhhhh you should definitely try to read poetry on this level!! IT CHANGES EVERYTHING. And most of the time I have a phobia about writing in books, too - I don't even fold the corners over to mark my page - but I promise the process works just as well on printer paper. Haha. :p

      Thanks for commenting!! :)


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